What is a research paper, anyway?
There are many descriptions of what a research paper is, but for the purposes of this article, a research paper is a piece of formal writing addressed to your professor to inform her about the “facts” you gathered on your topic. She will want to know what you will be investigating and why, what you found out, and whether your findings have significance. There are four crucial parts: 1) introduction, 2) body, 3) conclusion and recommendations, and 4) bibliography.
- What should go into my introduction?
Your introduction should describe what the paper will be about and why it is of interest–either to you or to society in general. In the introduction, you are attempting to briefly tell your reader what they can expect to find in the rest of the paper. Oftentimes, in professional situations, a reader may not have the time to read an entire research paper, so they take time to read the introduction to give themselves a general understanding of what the writer wants to say and why. Although your professor will obviously read your entire research paper, write your introduction with this lazier person in mind.
- What is a ‘body’ and what is it doing in my writing?
The “body” of a paper is the meat of your findings. It is all that you want to say about what you found out about your topic. Here you will describe and explain your topic to the best of your ability. You will do this by taking quotes from the books, articles, and websites you read about your topic. These quotes, which you either write down as they were printed or in your own words, must be “cited” with a “footnote” which leads your reader to the book or article or website where you got the information. The footnote generally consists of the author’s name or the title and the exact page number where you found the quote. Not citing information you got from your sources is called “plagiarism” because it is understood that all sentences not cited in your paper are your own. By not citing information you got from your sources, you are wrongfully attempting to pass someone else’s words and work off as your own–which is grounds for expulsion from many colleges. The body is, arguably, the most important part of your research paper because it is here that you let your professor know what you learned and from where you learned it.
- What conclusions? What recommendations?
In this section, you will first want to restate the “main points” of your findings. Rather than repeating what you wrote in the body of your paper, you will pull out two or three “main ideas” to say again because you think that they are important. In addition, you will give a few recommendations for positive change that your research suggested to you and that you want other people to know about. Just as in the introduction, write your conclusion with that lazy person in mind, who will skip the body of your paper and read only your introduction and conclusion to understand what your research is all about. Explain it to them concisely and accurately.
- And finally, the bibliography.
A bibliography is a list of the sources-books, articles, and web sites-that you read to find out more about your topic and used (or “cited”) in the body of your paper. Your bibliography should be listed alphabetically (A to Z) by the author’s last name or by the title. Unlike the rest of your paper, which is “double-spaced,” the bibliography is “single-spaced,” with an extra space between each individual entry. It is in your bibliography that your reader will be able to see all the information about the sources you used including the author, title, pages, chapters, volumes, and publishing information. This is not only to show your professor that you used real sources in writing your paper, but it also tells your imaginary lazy reader where s/he can read more about your topic.
Research paper dictionary:
- Cite – (verb) to quote or reword someone else’s work in support of an idea or a point in your own work. (Noun) Citation.
- Double space – (noun) one empty line between each line of written text.
- Single space – (noun) no empty lines between each line of written text.
- Fact – (noun) thing that is known to have occurred and verifiable in a reliable source.
- Footnote – (noun) citation indicated in the text with a number and printed at the bottom of the page.
- Main idea/main point – (noun) the most important topic in a written work.
- Opinion – (noun) what one thinks about something or a fact which is not verifiable in a reliable source.
- Plagiarize – (verb) to take and use the thoughts, writings, inventions, and ideas of another person as one’s own. (Noun) Plagiarism.
Research paper criteria:
- Format: Does your final paper follow the style and arrangement of the model research paper? Did you go through all of the research paper steps–meeting, outline, first draft, final draft?
- Information: Have you demonstrated that you learned something new?
- Logic: Are the points you make in your paper clear and follow from the citations you quote from other sources?
- Sources: Have you used a good balance of scholarly material [books, articles, websites, lectures, etc.] in your paper?
- Grammar and Punctuation: Is your grasp of written English satisfactory?
Things to know before writing or researching:
- What is your task?
- Who is your audience?
- What are the stages of development of the paper?
- What are the criteria for grading?
If you don’t know the answers to any of these questions, check with your professor!
Choosing sources for your paper:
This section will help you figure out if a source is going to help you write your paper. Unlike when you read a novel, you do NOT need to read everything to know if (and how) a particular book or article will help you. We suggest that you use the following checklist to figure out (pretty quickly) whether a source will be useful to you.
When you look at “structure” you are checking to see if the book or article you have chosen addresses your topic. You will also be able to determine which chapters of a book (or sections of an article) deal most directly with your topic and therefore, will be most helpful to you.
When you look for “purpose,” you are trying to determine why the author is writing this book or article. This is important so that you can know what the author is trying to do as he/she writes. Is the author only trying to present the facts or is he/she trying to convince you to take a particular position on an issue? By knowing an author’s purpose, you can make a decision about whether you trust what she/he says and want to include this source in your paper.
When you think of “audience,” you are considering who the author had in mind when writing her/his book or article. In other words, who is the author talking to? By knowing the audience, you can figure out whether a book or article was written for professionals in a certain field, e.g., doctors, lawyers, teachers, students, the general public, or maybe another group, like activists. Ask yourself:
Does the source use language only understood by members of the particular field? Does the source assume that readers are familiar with other books and research articles? Does the source present “data,” “evidence,” or tables? How difficult is the vocabulary? What does it feel like when you give the source a quick read? Like your textbook, a popular magazine article, or is it more technical?
The author is the person who wrote the book or article. By knowing who the author is, you can determine whether he or she is considered an “expert” in the field and therefore, like to be providing accurate information. If the author is someone that you have heard of before in class (maybe mentioned in your textbook), then you may choose to read and refer within your own paper to books and articles that she/he has written. If you have never heard of this person before (and your professor has not either), then you might want to reconsider using this source.